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If an enemy of the United States wanted to decapitate America’s national security leadership, they could hardly do a better job of it than Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have by blocking scores of top nominees, leaving critical positions unfilled by the men and women the president of the United States has selected for those jobs.
Cruz ostensibly put a hold on 30 nominations until the U.S. agreed to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project bringing gas from Russia to Europe. Hawley has said he would block all nominees until top Biden officials resign following America’s exit from Afghanistan.
The hypocrisy of criticizing Biden’s foreign policy while they hobble it would be mind-blowing if it wasn’t coming from two reckless partisans who egged on the mob that eventually stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Both of these Senate show ponies were active supporters of a Trump administration that attacked the national security establishment in other ways—leaving key posts unfilled so that power would be concentrated with people whose loyalty was to the Donald, rather than the country. Putting key aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the hands of irresponsible, often incompetent hacks like Stephen Miller, Richard Grenell, and John Ratcliffe. Raising levels of partisanship at key agencies like the State Department and the CIA while creating a severe brain drain that will take years from which to recover.
As both the New York Times and Washington Post have reported, the current situation in terms of vacant senior national security positions has reached critical levels. The papers cited ongoing research by the Partnership for Public Service showing that as of September 11, only 26 percent of the new administration’s appointees for 170 key national security positions in the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, and Homeland Security had been confirmed by the Senate, though a small selection of holdovers remained in place. Only one nominee to be an ambassador has been confirmed.
To put this into perspective, the 9/11 Commission cited the fact that only 57 percent of such positions were filled as of Sept. 11, 2001 as a source of vulnerability that urgently needed to be corrected. Assistant Secretary of State and department spokesperson Ned Price said in response to the current situation, “Among the lessons we learned from the 9/11 Commission Report is the imperative of swift confirmation of a new administration's nominees, especially in the national security and foreign policy realm. Yet today, some 80 State Department nominees—including some of our most important posts—are pending before the Senate. Some of those have already been voted out of committee on a strong bipartisan basis and merely await a floor vote. The bottom line is that America needs its full team on the field if we are to confront challenges and seize opportunities most effectively. And, right now, we don't have that team at our disposal.”
Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president for research at the Partnership for Public Service, which is tracking appointees, has said, “That this is not more of a scandal is scandalous. The broken and deeply politicized Senate confirmation process made our country less safe then—the 9/11 attacks spotlighted that. It has worsened significantly since that time and it makes us less safe now.”
Schulman adds, “Our incredible body of federal civil servants is why this trend is an embarrassment, not a continuous disaster. They serve admirably and responsibly no matter the season. However, there are real limits to the power, reach, authority, and effectiveness of acting officials. Many are performing multiple roles. There is no denying the ‘substitute teacher’ perception even with the most competent acting officials. Further, long-term utilization of acting officials—particularly when hampered by Senate inaction—actually ends up undermining Congressional oversight.”
It was not always this way. On average, the Senate confirmation process takes about twice as long as it did in the 1980s, the lessons of 9/11 having made absolutely zero impact on the members of the Senate. During the Clinton years, there were only 16 cloture motions to move forward executive branch nominees (the process by which a Senate hold can be overcome). There were 101 during the Obama years, 189 under Trump. The result of this process becoming increasingly sclerotic is that of 340 top-level positions at Defense, Justice, State, and Homeland Security by the Partnership for Public Service, only 14 percent have been filled by Biden nominees.
Since the first stories on this backlog appeared two weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has filed cloture on several State nominees and they are now moving through the process with several having already been confirmed. )
This is better late than never, though the movement now is a reminder that the Democratic leadership in the Senate, department heads across the government, and the White House all could have been doing more to prioritize this process all along. One current State Department official said to me, “The White House has a ton of legislative priorities. It is understandable they don’t want to fight all these battles at once. But some of the nominees I’ve spoken to feel like they have been in limbo or not being supported enough. Democrats, after all, control the Senate. It sends a bad signal if Democratic leaders themselves are not seen to be doing everything in their power to move nominations along. Recent moves in this direction are therefore seen as an encouraging sign.”
Beyond pushing harder, the fact that the process has been deteriorating and consequently putting the country at risk for decades suggests other solutions are needed. Among those that should be considered are reducing the number of jobs — presently 1,237 — that require Senate confirmation before nominees can begin to serve. Eliminating or reducing the right of senators to block such vital national security nominations would be another way to address this as would filibuster reform. Creating more permanent senior positions akin to the “permanent secretaries” found in many other governments would be another welcome improvement on our structure, providing greater continuity.
For now, though, we are at risk because not only have we failed to learn the lessons of the past, we have flouted what experience has taught, often in the name of the politics of cynicism. The stakes are too high to tolerate that and we dare not wait for another catastrophe to drive home the message that sometimes the greatest risks we face are homegrown, manufactured by the very people we elect to help defend us.